Critics want to cast Colin Kaepernick out without looking at the sum of what is afflicting the San Francisco 49ers offense. And that’s fine and all, but it might be a little misleading, especially when this team comes roaring back, restocked with weapons and a tweaked offensive approach.
Analysts like ESPN’s Trent Dilfer, who said, “Take away Kaepernick’s first read and he becomes a remedial passer,” may be over-analyzing the quarterback's game while overlooking all of the moving parts involved. For one, it’s not just the first read; it’s the second, third and fourth. All of Kap’s weapons are getting shut down.
It is not a single defect in one player’s game that has discombobulated the offense.
When asked what he thought of Kaepernick’s struggles this season, Pro Football Hall of Fame wideout Jerry Rice said, “I think it’s because he doesn’t have the guys outside.” This is a far more logical take because it is all-encompassing—it does not omit things like injuries, play calling, the quarterback's experience or lack of chemistry.
We already witnessed in 2012 that the 49ers signal-caller could effectively cycle through his reads and hit everything on the route tree. But the fact is, a lot of things have changed and the 49ers have not adjusted accordingly.
Subsequently, this offense is hollow and non-threatening.
“Even though Frank Gore is going to be that workhorse they hand the ball off to, you’ve still got to have guys outside to strike fear into opposing teams and to be able to defeat bump-and-run,” Rice added about the team’s offensive struggles. "I think they’ve been missing a lot of components."
It is simply an element that they are without, and as a result, teams are able to put the offense in a stranglehold.
Furthermore, once you really step back and look at the entire picture, it is clear to see that it is not all on the man behind center. He's endured. Even with the extreme variable change from 2012 to 2013, Kaepernick has still played proficient football since being inserted into the starting lineup:
The takeaway from this is that the 49ers quarterback isn’t all of a sudden deserving of being typecast as a one-read quarterback or completely inept—the man needs help. He needs help from the minds in the play booth and he needs help from his supporting cast.
It is true that Kaepernick could’ve done more at times, but the same could be said about everyone else. And yes, these losses do not reflect well on the quarterback at the time, but we’re learning that these sporadic shortcomings are a character flaw of the team. Just take a look at the games they dropped in 2012 till now—the entire team simply doesn’t show up.
Time and time again, San Francisco comes out flat, fails to execute and gives the game away with terrible play calling.
In nine non-wins dating back to 2012, including the playoffs, the 49ers have allowed an average of 146.8 rushing yards per game and let up 10 rushing touchdowns in those contests. Running back Frank Gore also averaged 13.8 carries per game, only getting 20 attempts on two occasions.
Overall, they missed tackles, couldn’t sustain drives and got out-coached.
So this column is not a reactionary piece thrusting 100 percent of the responsibility on the team’s franchise quarterback. Instead, it is more of a long overdue message to the 49ers brain trust in regard to what they can do to enhance their offensive output; namely by surveying opportunities and putting forth the extra effort to create new roles for idle players.
If the Niners want to get better, they’re going to have to venture out to uncharted waters and be resourceful.
Spread the Ball Around
To walk through the tunnel on game day and consistently have nothing designed for any of the auxiliary players on offense is befuddling. There isn’t a team in the National Football League that is more reliant on its flagship players, particularly in the passing game.
Each week, there has been a grave failure to integrate non-stars into the offense.
Yet, in the past two years, they’ve consciously invested in talent via the NFL draft and currently have a plethora of weapons on hand to attack teams in the air and on the ground. Weapons many teams around the league would be ecstatic to have.
Time passes, and they continue to hold back. To unchain this offense, the staff needs to write in and call new plays that aren’t as predictable as the sun rising.
They must diligently work to field a more filled-out attack that doesn’t allow the defense to zero in and clamp down by the second quarter. San Francisco must challenge teams to defend every inch of the field, and do so with as many players as possible.
The 49ers can accomplish that by emphasizing roles of existing players.
Part I: Boosting Situational Football with Vance McDonald
Tight end Vance McDonald is a second-round pick the team was truly elated to add, particularly its coach, Jim Harbaugh, who compared the rookie to Iron Mike Ditka and slapped him with the No. 89. The inkling was that he’d be an impact player right out of the gate.
Nine games in, McDonald only has only reeled in six balls for 86 yards all season, earning just 15 targets.
His Rice teammate Luke Willson, who now plays for the rival Seattle Seahawks, has twice the production and was drafted three rounds later. Dion Sims (Dolphins), Levine Toilolo (Falcons), Chris Gragg (Bills) and Mychal Rivera (Raiders) are also all mid-to-late rounders selected well after McDonald that have had more success early on.
It is not like the rookie is incapable, either. To reiterate, the offensive staff has not scripted a thing for him. There has been no real attempt to get McDonald rolling in any one game, even though he is averaging 14.3 yards per catch on the year, posting big grabs of 19, 20 and 25 yards in three different games.
There’s plenty of reason to get him more involved, it just hasn't happened.
He’s been snubbed by offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who, for one reason or another, refuses to call more pass plays with him as the first read. And wouldn't you know it, the one notable time he did, McDonald caught it out of the flat and steamrolled Richard Sherman to pick up the first down.
In fact, he’s moved the chains 4-of-6 times touching the ball this year (66.6 percent).
For a team struggling with situational football as much as San Francisco, currently the least-efficient passing unit on third down, per NFL Team Rankings, the 49ers could certainly benefit from a big-bodied target like McDonald.
Just put it up and let the tight end highpoint the ball. It's about opportunities.
With his physical dimensions, McDonald was brought in to make the contested catches, but he can’t do that without being targeted. At 6’4”, 267 pounds, with the wingspan of an archangel, the Niners need to begin trusting him as a rebounder. That means 5-7 targets per game and see what shakes loose.
And if the coaches are not confident in his abilities to contribute on a down-by-down basis, that’s fine, too. Scale down his role and plan to get Vance McDonald involved specifically on third-down situations and in the red-zone, where he can use his body to shield defenders, as well as his power after the catch.
Part II: Adding a Safety Valve and Big-Play Spark with LaMichael James
LaMichael James is another early-round draftee that many believed would soon be a big piece to the puzzle on offense, perhaps even adding a brand new dimension as a receiving outlet for the quarterback, very similar to New Orleans Saints scat back Darren Sproles.
Embodying that shifty roadrunner type, James is essentially cut from the same cloth, possessing like physical traits that would enable him to carry out near-identical play designs. Though, again, no job has materialized for the former Heisman candidate from Oregon.
Oddly enough, James has only taken the field in three games this season, in a year where the 49ers are desperate for playmakers no less.
It is as if the front office drafted him without any real prior discussions of how they’d utilize him. Typically a second round pick is not inactive for 18 of his first 25 regular season games. And with as pioneering an offense we’ve seen this be at times, it is that much more of a shock.
But the 49ers have just recently begun making him a part of the active 46 again, which means they could be open to the idea of getting him more work (if he responds well, of course).
That being said, the Niners must: (1) Develop a screen game and (2) Chain him to Colin Kaepernick.
The 49ers need to cut back on the long balls and slow-developing routes, and return to quick passes that have run-after-the-catch potential. James is perfectly suited for this, which should make him the front man in San Francisco’s late-season rebirth on the offensive side of the ball.
Concocting a screen game around the No. 23 would allow him to get on the field and contribute inversely to Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter, expanding what this team is capable of offensively. Having him in the quarterback’s hip pocket also gives Kap an outlet when there’s pressure.
Overall, they need to construct an underneath game that features LaMichael James as an open space runner. There is also potential for gained yardage. If you watch Sproles, there are a lot of little gainers before he actually busts one, but the Saints know this and remain committed to it.
Sean Payton knows that at one point or another the defense is going to be out of position or a defender will take a bad angle. And that’s really all it takes: time, elbow grease and a little bit of persistence. The 49ers have not gotten any of their guys multiple touches on a day to allow them to get a rhythm like this.
James is a player they need to do this with.
Since they set the standard, here is a look at another successful example staged by the New Orleans Saints and none other than Darren Sproles. It was his eighth touch of the night versus the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football, closing out the first half.
He touched the ball on two of the four plays leading up to the score.
Personnel: Posse (3 WR-1 TE-1 RB)
New Orleans is about 30 yards out with only 13 seconds remaining on the clock. On top of the game situation, this spread look from Drew Brees and Co. has to have defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and the Cowboys thinking that the Saints are taking a shot at the end zone.
The first thing they’re likely to notice is that all-world tight end Jimmy Graham is lined up in the backside slot, which is no doubt setting off bells in the heads of the entire defense, as third-year linebacker Bruce Carter is alone shading him in off-man coverage.
The Dallas safeties are probably thinking about squeezing No. 80, so their eyes are not in the backfield.
Meanwhile the corners still have to worry about manning up with the three wide receivers, which includes Marques Colston outside. By the time all that information has been processed—and much, much more—the ball is ready to be snapped and Sproles is an afterthought.
Remember those four pass-catchers the Cowboys were so worried about?
Nothing but a decoy to clear out a whole lot of green grass for Darren Sproles who has all the room in the world to comfortably catch this dump off and follow the designed screen up the right sideline.
There is not a defender in sight.
Now the defense is in a position they don’t want to be. They’ve got to track down one of the best open-field runners in space and make the tackle. Not only that, but the downfield blocking and hustle from the two O-linemen that created the wedge was perfect, giving the Saints the head start from the get-go.
Sproles is on the move.
And he knocks it out of the park, scoring a 28-yard touchdown in roughly five seconds flat.
The defense never even knew what hit it. It was a brilliant play call, and just the kind the Niners need to draw from. Mismatches, like a linebacker on LaMichael James, plus the added bonuses of scheme and misdirection make this an avenue the 49ers must explore.
San Francisco also has one of the most revered offensive lines in the league, known not only for its power, but for its uncanny athleticism as a collective unit. Pro Bowler Joe Staley was once a college tight end, and perhaps the most versatile blindside tackle in the NFL today.
As for the guards, Mike Iupati is a like a wrecking ball on rocket-powered roller skates and converted swing tackle Alex Boone moves remarkably well for a 6’7” interior offensive lineman.
Veto Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman
49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman does handle the play-calling duties for the team and has since 2011—nothing has changed. While there were questions about his ability to cook up game plans and call plays, his offense was always an improvement from what was in place prior to his arrival. So, for a while there, Roman got a pass because of it.
However, San Francisco is now looking to take the next step and it seems like he is holding the team back, or jeopardizing its chances at the very least.
Perhaps the Niners to need take this to a level they don’t want to go, which means shaking up the natural order of things on Sunday. It’s true that Harbaugh is not one to breach the hierarchy that has been assembled—mainly because he respects the chain of command and doesn’t want to create unnecessary distractions—but something must be done.
As an offensive-minded head coach, the 49ers head coach might need to start vetoing Roman’s play calls in the game, especially when they don’t include Frank Gore for long stretches at a time. When Vernon Davis was out of the game versus Carolina and San Francisco was only down one point at halftime, they came out for the third and fourth quarter and only gave Gore two carries.
Frank the Tank was averaging 5.1 yards per attempt on the day.
This has been a self-destructive pattern of Roman’s, whether he is aware of it or not. It has resulted in losses in games that were very winnable well into the late minutes, even when the defense was dog tired but still standing strong.
But why hasn’t anything been done?
To take a stab in the dark, Harbaugh might not be overruling Roman because they already have enough issues with clock management. Taking the time to kill his selection, choose another, then relay it to Kaepernick and get the huddle going may not fit under the play clock.
So, aside from the prospective danger of compromising their relationship, there’s a chance Harbaugh cannot justify it from a logistical standpoint. Why complicate things further, right?
On the other hand, 49ers beat reporter Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News communicated that Harbaugh may very well be “overruling or discussing” the play calls on game day already, which is why it has taken the offense so long to get organized at times.
Whatever the case, the current play calling needs an outsider’s perspective.